Tuesday, January 26, 2010

English - the missing bits

I was struck by a thought today; what is henching?

We all know what a henchman is and have a pretty good idea what such a person does. But what actually is henching? How does one hench?

Well, I found out. Apparently, it's a very old word that means someone who looks after the horses (from the Old English Hengest - horse). But, as it's not used in any other context these days, 'hench' has become something of a linguistic ghost. And that got me wondering about other words and whether they contain the shadows of words we no longer use. We can be underwhelmed and overwhelmed so, presiumably, we could be whelmed at one time. A miscreant is, I assume, someone who creants in a naughty way. If marvelous means 'like a marvel', does jealous mean 'like a jea'?

I obviously have too much time on my hands because I then started to notice that there are missing tenses and uses of some words too. You can do taxidermy and be a taxidermist but you can't taxiderm. What is the missing verb? There is masturbation and masturbating. You can masturbate but you can't have a ... what? There's a missing noun there. Which is probably why we've made a few up to plug the gap, if you'll pardon the innuendo.

If a mobster is someone involved in a mob, is a lobster involved with a lob? And if a surgeon does surgery, does a sturgeon do sturgery?

Send me your English language ghosts and oddities. I'd be fascinated to see some more.


Cephalopodcast said...

Sounds like you are talking about back-formations.

Aven said...

Some old chestnuts my family has used so long we've forgotten they're jokes are ept/inept ( presumably just "apt"), kempt/unkempt, and heveled/ disheveled (or maybe sheveled?).

joelmead said...

Flammable and inflammable both mean the same thing. To quote Dr Nick from The Simpsons, 'Who knew?'